The Strange Case of Officer A. M.

Those responsible for the attitude that leads to violent IDF behavior are known before the completion of the trial, with the chief of staff and the defense minister at the top of the list.

A.M., an infantry officer, severely beat a Palestinian, not only with his bare hands but also with the butt of his pistol. The incident was documented and has not been challenged. Was A.M. tried and punished? He was promoted to the senior ranks of the army.

It was a different A.M., not Lieutenant Adam Malul of the infantry's Kfir Brigade, who was held in custody for two months until the completion of the legal proceedings against him for beating a Palestinian while searching for suspects in shootings and other attacks. Were a civilian being charged with assault, or if he had worn a blue uniform, and not the army's khaki, and had been accused of police brutality, Malul would have gone free. Malul's biggest mistake is that he is of junior rank.

A quarter century ago, before Adam Malul was even born, a different A.M. pounded a Palestinian. Yitzhak Mordechai, a brigadier general at the time, the commander of the Paratroopers Brigade and of the Infantry Forces, and others beat up the terrorist survivors of the 1984 hijacking of Bus No. 300. Malul's victim was more humiliated than hurt; Mordechai's victim was handed over in pretty bad shape to men of the Shin Bet, and they finished the job, killing him.

Mordechai had operational excuses for his behavior. He wanted to extract essential information from his prisoner. Malul also made some arguments in his defense. But Mordechai was not held in custody until the completion of proceedings - not one single, symbolic day. He was tried before his friend from the paratroopers, Major General Haim Nadal, who was quick to acquit him. A third paratrooper, then chief of staff Moshe Levy, promoted Mordechai to major general.

This discrimination - arrest for the officer of inferior rank and promotion for the senior officer - undermines the credibility of the Israel Defense Forces, which pretends cynically to obey the law and follow rules of ethics. An impatient or hot-tempered senior officer who strikes an Israeli soldier will not be punished; but not so for a junior officer who is caught doing the same.

The GOC Central Command, Gadi Shamni, criticized Malul and the commander of the Kfir Brigade, Colonel Itai Virob, who came to his defense. Shamni would have appeared less sanctimonious had he also aimed his preaching upwards and not preserved the tradition that silences brigade commanders, division area commands and the staff of the military advocate general. They dare not complain about their superiors, all the way up to the chief of staff, who impose an aggressive policy that gets those who are required to interpret it and apply it on the ground (lieutenants and sergeants) in trouble.

This does not necessarily apply to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who as commander of the Golani Brigade dared to disagree with his immediate superior in the Gaza Strip, GOC Mordechai; but the IDF has known more than one chief of staff of the school of thought of Rafael Eitan ("You want to know what an Arab thinks? Crack his head open") or of Shaul Mofaz from that hair-raising briefing to the officers of the Judea and Samaria Division on Ammunition Hill in 2001, which some interpreted as encouragement to get killed in a fire fight.

The lesson Lieutenant A.M. needs to learn from the brigadier general (and later major general and defense minister) is that it is best to show restraint and to strike only when you reach a senior rank. Mordechai's eventual demise was a conviction for sexual assault, which brought shame on the IDF, but he was allowed to keep his rank by a panel headed by a retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd, Nadal's colleague on the committee that investigated the Second Lebanon War.

Adam Malul is a product of the system that encourages turning a blind eye to incidents of violence against soldiers and civilians, Israelis and Arabs, including the murder of prisoners, and promotes those involved, to even the most senior ranks. In the officers' training course they may mention, momentarily, the massacre at Kafr Qasem, but in the infantry brigades, whose units were involved years ago in war crimes, they ignore them, and therefore also avoid drills on the need to prevent their recurrence.

The massacre that the paratroopers committed against Egyptians at Mitla Pass in 1956 became public in 1995. The commanders of the paratroopers for the past decade and beyond, including Shamni, Aviv Kochavi and Hertzi Halevy, who are lauded by all, did not consider it necessary to point out that terrible incident as a lesson to their troops - as something that must never occur again.

Those judging Lieutenant Malul will decide if he is guilty, but those responsible for the attitude that leads to this behavior are known before the completion of the trial: the senior ranks of the IDF, its generals and lawyers, with the chief of staff and the defense minister at the top of the list.